Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 11

On January 10 Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev took the dramatic step of appointing Kazakhstan’s first civilian defense minister. In general terms the step will be welcomed in the West, as it sends a clear signal that the Kazakh government is interested in increasing civilian control over the armed forces. However, appointing former prime minister Daniyal Akhmetov as defense minister and moving Army General Muhktar Altynbayev to first deputy defense minister and chairman of the Committee of Chiefs of Staff, could presage deeper and more systemic military reform.

Nazarbayev visited the Ministry of Defense on January 10, introducing Akhmetov as the defense minister. He immediately set a range of tasks for the new minister. In particular, Kazakhstan has yet to adequately form its own defense complex. Moreover, he wants Akhmetov to continue to modernize the armed forces. Nazarbayev also stated that the new defense minister has 30 days to draft specific proposals on accomplishing these priority tasks. The precise details of these plans could reveal the depth of the political drive and determination that lies behind these changes.

Nazarbayev explained his rationale for the appointment, by characterizing the Altynbayev period as a time marked by structural changes. “Altynbayev and I have worked all these years to create our armed forces, types of troops, regional directorates, and the Committee of Chiefs of Staff, and have been preparing for this event. Trends in the world are such, as you know, that the military should deal with military matters. Civilians should be in charge of the policy of managing the defense complex. This is so in all countries in the world. In the light of this, General Altynbayev has been appointed chairman of the Committee of Chiefs of Staff, and former first deputy defense minister General Bolat Darbekov will be his first deputy,” Nazarbayev explained (Interfax-Kazakhstan, Khabar TV, January 10). Akhmetov’s key task in his new post will be to examine issues relating to the equipping of the armed forces and how Kazakhstan’s state funds should be spent on the military.

The strength of Akhmetov’s position can only be appreciated by placing his appointment in the context of the full government reshuffle. Karim Masimov is taking over as prime minister. The 41-year old Masimov had held the post of deputy prime minister and was in charge of expanding strategic areas of economic development. Akhmetov, therefore, will deal with his former deputy when he negotiates the financial needs of the armed forces with the prime minister. Masimov also declared his loyalty to Nazarbayev during a joint session of parliament on January 10, “At one time you appointed me as your aide,” Masimov recalled, addressing the head of state. “I was, is, and will remain your faithful aide,” Masimov said (Itar-Tass, Kazakhstan Today, January 10, EDM, January 11). Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense stands to benefit from this ministerial link, since Masimov is unlikely to oppose reform proposals from Defense Minister Akhmetov.

Another crucial appointment, which has implications for Kazakhstan’s security cooperation with the West, was the choice of Kanat Saudabayev as secretary of the Security Council. Saudabayev had held the post of Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States. He will apply his knowledge of the importance of Kazakhstan’s security cooperation with the United States to his work in the Security Council, potentially strengthening the understanding of Kazakh-U.S. relations within this vital security structure. The former secretary of the Security Council, Marat Tazhin, was appointed as foreign minister (Interfax, January 11).

In a sense, the appointment of a civilian defense minister in Kazakhstan has been long overdue, and perhaps it is more surprising that it did not occur sooner. After all, several years ago Uzbekistan implemented such changes as part of its own efforts to position itself as a credible pro-Western security partner in the region. Arguably, Nazarbayev did not believe the timing was right to achieve this milestone before now. Consequently, the Ministry of Defense and the armed forces have been left open to criticism. Akhmetov will at least provide a semblance of greater civilian control. But the personnel changes are calculated to achieve more concrete results.

There are grounds for thinking the reshuffle will help to facilitate further reform of the armed forces. Akhmetov’s experience as prime minister will prove advantageous, as his efforts to secure more fiscal support for re-equipping the armed forces will involve dealing with his former deputy. Moreover, these changes are supported by what appear to be well-planned ministerial changes. Nazarbayev expects that Tazhin’s experience of the Security Council for example, will make him an effective foreign minister.

Nazarbayev believes that Altynbayev successfully carried out structural reforms of the armed forces, which suggests that the present structures will witness little further evolution. Instead, the government’s priority is to provide sufficient funding for the armed forces to properly equip these emerging structures, and therefore a defining benchmark for the new defense minister will be how successfully he can create a defense industry capable of delivering the specific needs of the armed forces. Akhmetov may not deliver more civilian control over the armed forces, but Kazakhstan seems to want to break its reliance on foreign military equipment.